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Day of the Dead art: Discover the real meaning behind this Mexican tradition

Since the dawn of time, life and death have been drawn together in a passionate dance that continues for eternity.
Since the dawn of time, life and death have been drawn together in a passionate dance that continues for eternity.

While death is a rite of passage, the Day of the Dead tradition (1st November – 2nd November) teaches us that it is to be celebrated, not mourned. We may be familiar with the brightly coloured decorations and the elaborate sugar skulls that make up the decorations for the Day of the Dead, yet few are aware of the origins of this tradition. Using Day of the Dead art, discover the true essence of this famous Mexican festivity. 

The power of ritual and Day of the Dead

Most of us have been involved in some type of ritual, be it a birthday party or a funeral. Yet rituals have been around since humans have walked the planet. The Day of the Dead ritual is a sacred Mexican ritual that dates back thousands of years. Archaeological evacuations of pre-Hispanic burial sites show that in ancient Mexican cultures, they honoured their dead by burying them with offerings of pottery, food and other household objects. This has been widely documented with cave murals and carvings. Today, many indigenous communities have abandoned their original traditions but the Zapotecs of Oaxaca still celebrate the Day of the Dead with their entire families. 

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Zapotec traditions live on today

On the 31st of October, the Mothers set aside money to buy new dishes to place on the family altar alongside yellow marigolds, candles, toys, religious artefacts, cut tissue paper and photographs of the deceased. In the early hours of the 1st of November, around 4:00 am, the children’s spirits are expected. By 8:00 am, the infant spirits depart and a candle is blown out on the altar to mark their departure. At 3:00 pm, the adult spirits arrive and large altar candles are lit. The Zapotecs believe that the spirits will go away weeping if nothing is offered to them. At 8:00 pm, the family say prayers to their loved ones who are no longer on Earth and on the morning of the 2nd November, everyone attends a mass at church and the cemeteries fill with people. By the 4th of November, the altars are removed and life returns to normal.

Day of the Dead art and the Mictecacíhuatl Goddess of Death

Perhaps the most common symbol of the Day of the Dead is that of the skeletal goddess Mictecacíhuatl, the goddess of death. Her haunting image has been reproduced countless times and has been adapted over the centuries into the modern caricature that is seen reproduced countless times today. However, her original appearance, as seen in the Aztec Codex Borgia depicts her as a warrior woman armed with a bird, feathers and serpent talismans to ward off evil. 

The Day of the Dead is celebrated in the Aztec calendar month of Mictecacíhuatl, the same name given to the Aztec goddess of death. As myth and legend has it, Mictecacíhuatl was sacrificed as an infant and forced to grow up in the underworld, where she met her husband and became the goddess of the dead. Her deathly appearance is linked to both death and resurrection since she spent her life collecting bones in the hope that the Gods would send her back to the land of the living.

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Symbols within Day of the Dead drawings

Yet, it is not just the goddess of the underworld who is used to symbolise this grand celebration. Motifs such as the tree of life candelabra are common ways to reference the celebration within works of art. It is believed that this candelabra represents life and death and this is portrayed by mixing the imagery of the tree of life with the Mictecacíhuatl goddess. Candelabras are used during Day of the Dead ceremonies to guide the souls of the deceased back to the family home and are commonly placed on the altar. Each flame symbolises a soul. Another important image that is often hidden in Day of the Dead art is that of the Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcóatl, the plumed two-headed serpent. He is the God of air and wisdom and is closely linked to the morning star Venus which is a symbol of death and resurrection. The double-headed nature of Quetzalcóatl links back to an old Aztec belief that everything in the universe has a balancing double, a perfect duality. Just like life and death. 

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xolo goddess
She and her Xolos Limited Edition Print

Day of the Dead history

Many people believe that the Aztecs first celebrated el Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). However, if we take a closer look at Day of the Dead art and other historical relics we can see that the tradition began long before. 3000 years ago, the Olmec civilization settled in the Gulf of Mexico, now the states of Veracruz and Tabasco. 

The Olmecs are famous for carving large stone head sculptures, drinking chocolate and playing ball games. They have left behind a rich, cultural legacy that has shaped the modern world to this day. However perhaps one of the most striking leftovers of this innovative civilisation is the celebration of the dead. While archaeologists know very little about how this was celebrated back then, it is likely to have included song, dance and sacrifice. 

There are many variations of this ancient Mexican ritual around the world. In fact, almost every culture has a way to honour the dead around the end of October/beginning of November.

Using Day of the Dead art, discover the true essence of this famous Mexican festivity. 

What is Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead is a joyous and colourful celebration where families honour the memory of their ancestors and believe that the souls of the departed loved ones travel back to Earth once a year to be reunited with loved ones. Originally, it started as an ancient indigenous celebration but it has since evolved with the Toltecs, Mayans, Zapotec, Mixtec and Aztecs all putting their spin on the occasion. With the arrival of the Spanish and the Catholic religion, the Day of the Dead celebrations evolved once more into the festivity we know and love today. 

Olmec civilization
Mexican Olmeca Tribe Limited Edition Print

How do they celebrate the Day of the Dead festival?

Today, the Day of the Dead festival is an authentic mix of Aztec tradition and the Catholic All Saints festival. In states like Oaxaca, the preparations begin weeks in advance. Parades, processions and ofrendas (altars) are all lovingly prepared to make the festival as passionate and as meaningful as possible. Families gather together at home to create their altars which are constructed in such a way that it is easy for the spirits to find their way back home. This can be done by lining a pathway to the altar with brightly coloured Marigold flowers. Or, more commonly by placing the favourite dishes of the deceased on the altar alongside hand painted sugar skulls, beverages, nuts and berries, photos, candles and incense. The idea is to fill this corner of the home with light, colour and inviting aromas to help guide the souls of long-lost loved ones back home for the night.

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Apart from creating elaborate altars, one of the other popular Day of the Dead traditions is visiting the local cemetery. Here crowds gather together and musicians, stall holders selling carnival souvenirs and food vendors line the streets in celebration of the dead. Flowers, candy, candles and further offerings are placed on the grave sites and families join together telling stories and singing songs to those no longer on Earth. Larger cemeteries also have bandstands where musicians serenade the revellers with music until the early hours of the morning. Yet, there is so much more that lies beneath the surface of this traditional Mexican festive day. 

Creating magic with Day of the Dead altar art

Creating an altar is a work of art in itself. Not only are the offerings visually spectacular they also represent the four elements: earth, wind, water and fire. The earth is represented by the harvest through food offerings. It is thought that the soul must eat to nourish the soul and provide it with much-needed energy on its journey back to the underworld. The wind is reflected in a moving object and papier-mache creations are often used to depict wind. Fire is represented by a wax candle with each soul represented by a single flame. It is not uncommon for an extra flame to be placed on the altar to represent a forgotten soul. Water is placed in a container to replenish the spirit’s thirst after the long journey back into the world of the living. It is also known for its purification properties. These elements are intricately woven into the altar decoration to create works of art celebrating the beauty of life and death.  

oaxaca altar

Day of the Dead artists 

Of course, it would be a crime to touch upon Day of the Dead art and not mention José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). Before the Mexican revolution, Posada began creating Mexican folk art in the form of lithographs and prints. His work brought the spirit of the Day of the Dead alive in a humorous and tongue-in-cheek way. His most famous print is that of the La Calaca Garbancera which later transformed into La Catrina, now the iconic skeleton lady of the Day of the Dead celebrations. The drawings were a pointed criticism and satirization of Mexican society at the time, highlighting class habits, mainly those of the bourgeoisie who looked up to European culture while despising their own Mexican heritage. His work also portrays the Mexican intimate relationship with death and went on to inspire other great Mexican folk artists such as Saulo Moreno, Mario Moreno and Pedro Linares. Linares also played a pivotal role in Day of the Dead art creating the multicoloured Alebrijes. These imaginary creatures are created from the body parts of various animals and mixed together in a kaleidoscope of colours. 

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Day of the Dead celebrations around the world

There are many variations of this ancient Mexican ritual around the world. In fact, almost every culture has a way to honour the dead around the end of October/beginning of November. The neighbouring countries to Mexico also celebrate a similar version to the classic Day of the Dead ceremony yet across the globe it is possible to see Day of the Dead art depicting celebrations of life and death. 

Day of the Dead in Guatemala

Just like in Mexico, Aztec, Mayan and Catholic traditions melt together to create a festive celebration of the deceased. In Guatemala, Chapínes celebrate “El día de todos Santos”, All Saints Day. On this day, families come together to remember their lost loved ones and celebrate with parties, gatherings in the cemetery and most famously: a kite festival. Guatemalans believe that the spirits of loved ones return back to the land of the living to check up on their living family to see if they are ok. It is a time to feel loved and supported.

Day of the Dead in India

In India, the Day of the Dead is known as Mahalaya. This Hindu festival celebrates a conciliation with one’s ancestors and occurs in late October/early November. Prayers are offered to the dead and it is thought that this act helps put the souls of loved ones to rest until the next meeting. This is a purely religious ceremony and Hindus pray to Durga, a God often depicted in Indian Day of the Dead art, who will help to keep the demons away and protect the living and the dead.